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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Make 2014 The Year Government Works Better

Hopkinton is a high-income suburb of Boston. It is best known as the starting point for the annual Boston Marathon. In Hopkinton, residents can take a photo on a smartphone of any problem on their street, from uncollected trash to broken sidewalks, and send it to the town government. The photo and GPS data allow the town to assess exactly what is wrong and instantly pinpoint where it is. The underlying code for this “app” (little programs that run on handheld devices) was actually developed by Boston, which has passed it along to more than 40 municipalities in Eastern Massachusetts, all developing their own local versions.

The same stories are being told from Louisville to London to Lakewood, Ohio. Many cities didn’t spend money on developing their apps.

Citizens using New York City’s “NYC 311” app are presented with a built-in list of 16 common neighborhood problems to report, from damaged trees to abandoned vehicles, or they can report something new and unusual. It takes seconds to double-check alternate side parking rules over the holidays or to read brief reports about road closures and power outages. At the moment I’m writing this, emergency personnel are responding to reports of a loud noise, possibly illegal fireworks, in Pelham Bay Park. The city’s 311 system is designed to be two-way, with an emphasis on feedback and progress monitoring. Residents aren’t calling in about problems that are already being addressed. Time and personnel are freed up.

Even better, www.nyc.org and its related mobile apps have become critical tools if you’re siting, expanding or researching any business in the city.

To design its web-based and mobile civic tools, New York City relied heavily on “hackathons” in which computer programmers, graphic designers and others who know how to make web sites and apps that work show up for an intense day or evening of collaboration. It’s a form of “crowdsourcing,” turning to a large group of outsiders to help fix a problem rather than relying only on traditional employees.

It can be a great way to draw on talent from a talented community and open up a system to different ways of doing things.

Four years ago, Austin’s website redesign was way behind schedule, and local citizens formed Open Austin. The group not only got the city’s website up and running, this strategic alliance between community and government also has put Austin at the cutting edge of municipal transparency and service.

Some people chip in to be civic-minded, some just like to fix things, some want the experience, some have something to prove. Every region in the country has leaders who say they want to be all techy and attractive to young people. Some are actually doing things to send that message and to make it happen and others are just watching, and losing ground.

Almost all of our Long Island government units are stuck in top-down, command-and-control thinking that won’t allow for true innovation, reform and improvement. There is a fear among elected officials and managers of losing their sense of control. And the Civil Service Commission will object. There is always something.

If Gilbert, Arizona, can have an “app hub” on its web site, so can governments on Long Island.

Good apps are focused on usability. Designing one forces governments to think through every process, breaking it down into components, separating “what we’ve always done” from “what we really need to do.”    

Apps are an attack point.

Fifty-nine percent of American suburbanites now own a smartphone, according to a recent Pew study. The explosion in smartphone and tablet use is changing everything about communication and the exchange of information. Government revolves around those things, and it will have to change, too.

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Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net